Who among us is actually happy at the thought that we owe everything to God? That we owe not only our lives but our love – our very ability TO love – our love of self and others, our love of anything and everything in and about creation – all this we owe to God? This notion of “owing” appears, to me, to be one of the greatest barriers to actually believing in this unfathomable God, in the minds of so many in today’s world. In the minds of, I’d probably have to say most of my loved ones, at any rate. And while I like to imagine I am not a proselytizer – I don’t think I’m here to try to convince anyone to believe in God if you don’t, or to use God-speak if you’re not comfortably doing so – I’m always intrigued by the blend of academic exercise and spiritual perception that forms a foundation upon which humans might explore the ineffable. Along our way today, I’m hoping to discover some of the ways this gospel story might begin to do for gratitude, what Christian theology has done for love.
As you know, in the gospels we’re asked to love our enemies. The original words in Greek and Aramaic, more often than not, bid us exhibit “acts of loving kindness”. And while behaving in such a way as an outgrowth of organic emotional content might be how it would happen in a perfect world, it’s something of a comfort to know that we’re not so much being pushed into the almost impossible position of feeling love for our enemies, as much as we are invited to act in a loving manner. And, at the very least, we can act in a loving manner by refusing to return harm.
Gratitude is very similar. There are many situations in life – many experiences that feel like curses. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to actually feel grateful for them. But how do we act as a result? Is gratitude, like love, less about our feelings and more about our experience? Can we grow our understanding into more than emotion, and instead explore how gratitude, like love, can become a way of life – a Eucharistic life, or life of thanksgiving, as some commenters call it?
Luke’s account of the ten lepers offers us a glimpse of what gratitude can look like. And in using this passage, and stories like it in and out of the New Testament, using these as springboards, we become more equipped to find out for ourselves what makes our lives Eucharistic, and what impact such an understanding can have on our behavior, our relationships and, little by little throughout the world around us.
You see, being grateful is not a pre-requisite for being healed. Luke makes that clear in that only one returns to give thanks. However, the one who is grateful, the one who turns around and comes back, lays a hold upon what he can, desperately clinging, though he may not understand why, to someone, to something, with whom he might express himself. He CANNOT remain silent in response to what has been done in his life. He publically and spontaneously – and with great joy – gives thanks.
Prostrate at Jesus’ feet, the Samaritan embodies faith. And it is a faith borne of, and made complete in, that its basis resides in thankfulness. St. Ignatius, in his work on the Examen Prayer, devised a structure of multi-level praying that always begins with gratitude. Call it what you will: prayer, reflection, contemplation – all these may be powerfully reshaped for our on-going use by remembering to initiate each occurrence with grateful graciousness. Start every prayer with “thank you”.
Most significant about Luke’s story here is what is most obvious and yet un-overtly stated. The one who returns finds his thankfulness magnified because his experience includes entering into a new relationship. Here, is an example of human understanding as it is manifest in the wholeness of the person. And relationship is what changes the Samaritan’s attitude from one of lament to one of thanksgiving.
In Luke, and throughout the New Testament, the kind of “turning around” exhibited by the Samaritan is no accident. It’s an action with deep significance. It’s the movement of the whole person, a re-orientation, a coming to oneself and it’s initiated by something unfathomable. It’s initiated by grace.
And yet. Some are not healed. What of them? What of us? Is there room for us in this story?
Are we not being magically healed because of some problem with our faith? Because we don’t believe? Because we aren’t praying in the correct ways? We often think of faith as being likened to cause and effect: you pray for something and it happens or it doesn’t. But maybe cause and effect is not the point. In today’s gospel, the actual healing is almost a sideline event. Instead, the kind of wellness that is offered goes beyond the physical:
• All ten are relieved of physical symptoms
• But the one returning, the Samaritan – representing that which is perceived to be outside God’s reach – benefits not only in the moment of physical relief
o The Samaritan can be seen as being even more truly and deeply well – and with continued assurance – in that he avails himself, through grateful expression and action, of ongoing relationship.
Let me share some thoughts about how I was able to expand my understanding of what is meant by this kind of relationship.
In my late teens I entered into what I’ve begin to think of as the requisite decade away from Christian community of faith. I remained a seeker, though, studying yoga, chakras, meditation and reading all the growing catalogue of what we then referred to as metaphysical writings like, Louise Hay, the Seth material – even Eckankar and the Rosicrucians. I struggled with my doubts about God’s existence, unable to reconcile myself to my Roman Catholic upbringing where the teachings were very clear: there was no room in God’s family for the fullness of the genuine me. Utterly undaunted, I read and stretched myself in many ways – mind and body – and as I puzzled out this question of God, and even forcefully rejected notions of a personal relationship with Jesus, I began to settle into something like a level of comfort in thoughts of “God is love”. And as my journey progressed, each time I saw the word God in print – a word that used to make a shudder travel up my spine – I coached myself into replacing the word God with the word love. And I noticed that shift inside – a shift quite similar to what must have happened with our Samaritan in this story. A shift very much like the Prodigal son who, while feeding the swine, came to a new awareness and began his journey home to be reconciled and returned to relationship.
Today’s exploration has drawn me toward making a similar exercise of the word gratitude – replacing the word God with the word gratitude everywhere I see it. I’ll let you know how I progress.
I’ve come to rather haltingly find that faith is not characterized by some quid pro quo arrangement defined as “if I believe hard enough, all the outcomes I prefer will be made manifest”. Instead, I imagine we’re meant to understand that faith, rather than having a direct impact on things external, is in fact, that which prepares us internally to know the ways in which love – in which gratitude – in which God is with us, even in the face of life challenges that would test our reasoning or our ability to form a relationship with a God who operates entirely outside empirical evidence.
The demands of human life are great. And sometimes we may fall into the trap of believing we are not well enough equipped. But this gospel story today invites us into a joyfully humble place of wonder. We’re invited to open our minds and hearts as we move our hands and feet into an understanding that love and gratitude and faith are actually things we do. It’s so liberating to release these things from having to explain them to others or even to ourselves.
By revering God’s ways as we imagine them to be in this world – as we are able to cobble them together, layer upon layer of understanding borne of our engagement with scripture stories and the stories of our own lives…
By sallying forth wrapt in an aura of understanding that guides the honoring of ourselves and others…
And by gently noticing or loudly proclaiming our gratefulness in ALL of creation…
In these ways we actively fashion a personal foundation that accounts for an unassailable wellness regardless of the challenges that come, be they medical, professional, inter-relational, or otherwise.
When our prayers of thanks are part of the soul’s healing and a life’s flourishing, physical circumstances become less important.
Practicing gratitude changes individual lives, to be sure. And it changes the character of a community. I’m happiest when I think that here at Ascension we come together in worship, not only to “get something out of it”, but to overtly and beautifully show our thanks and praise. I’m happiest when I see the ways in which stewardship here is transformed from fundraising to the joyful giving of resources as a form of gladness and celebration. In this way, our shared mission changes from an ethical duty to the expression of hands and hearts that cannot be contained – that must, like the Samaritan, return to God with a fullness of self that is bursting with thanks.
When you come to this table – and even if you don’t, you’re still part of us and utterly cherished – I bid you hold in your hearts not only prayers of intercession and supplication. Also choose at least one thing for which you can deeply and genuinely give thanks from the bottom of your heart.
And then “go on your way – your faith has made you well” – no longer a problematic statement even if healing does not come. Instead, it characterizes a life of blessing for – not so much a church as much as a community, regardless of your belief or language about God.
Friends, let us always rejoice together in this place, and go from here giving thanks always. For in giving thanks in all things, we will find that love – that gratitude – that God (by whatever name), is, indeed, in all things.